Hello, Mr X Stitch here. I thought I’d tell you about my recent Xploits. It is a life less ordinary. Before I start, this is a pretty long blog post, so make sure you get comfortable! 🙂
Earlier this year, we ran the StitchforSyria campaign in association with Concern Worldwide UK, in which people were invited to cross stitch their own version of a design I’d created based on a traditional Lebanese embroidery design. Thanks to the generosity of cross stitchers from around the world, Concern received over 900 individual pieces, bursting with colour and filled with love. It was a phenomenal response and a massive thanks to everyone who took part. The designs were stitched together to form three vibrant wallhangings and the end result was truly wonderful.
I was thrilled when Deborah Underdown from Concern invited me to be part of a small team that would visit Lebanon to deliver the hangings to the project and last week the visit took place!
Let’s have a moment of context. Lebanon is a small country bordered by Syria and Israel. It has about 6 million inhabitants, and is currently home to approximately 1.5 million refugees from Syria. While the war in Lebanon ended in 1990, the country is still rebuilding itself, and it’s fair to say that the influx of refugees since 2011 has placed a lot of strain on the country. Concern Worldwide is one of several NGOs working in the area, and on the two-day trip to the area, I got the opportunity to see what a huge difference they are making to the lives of hundreds of people.
From helping Syrian children prepare for integration into the Lebanese school system by teaching basic language and behaviour skills, to providing running water and help to improve temporary houses for the winter season, the staff at the Concern project in the Akkar region of Northern Lebanon are addressing the fundamental needs of the families that arrive in the area. It was both heart warming and heart breaking to see these projects in action; the families that we met have been forced to leave their homes and their lives in Syria, with little immediate hope of returning, and so even the basic provision of a simple housing and running water makes a huge difference.
The number of refugees in the area mean that these basic facilities are the first option provided for families. Concern’s Shelter programme takes this support a stage further by placing families in small shelter units in unfinished buildings and helping them rehabilitate the buildings with windows, toilets and other basic living facilities. We visited a couple of these units and spoke with the people living there and I was struck at how noble and generous they were, despite having the most basic of living conditions.
When the media shares stories of refugees, there’s no opportunity to explain the lives of people and it serves to neutralise our feelings about the crisis. I’m as influenced by this as the next person, and so it was quite profound to realise that many of the people we met had middle class lives in Syria, with homes, jobs, cars holiday and “normal” trappings. Yet here they were in Syria, having had to leave their worlds behind. The sheer volume of refugees in Lebanon makes it difficult for everyone to be provided for, and for people to find work to sustain themselves. So it was terrific to visit the Livelihoods project in Tripoli and find out how embroidery was helping people overcome some of these challenges.
Based in the Basmeh and Zeitooneh’s Women’s Resource Centre, the Livelihoods project meets four times a week, bringing together about 30 women for six weeks of embroidery training. By the end of 2016, over 200 women will have been through the programme. The course teaches the basics of cross stitch, and when they’ve completed it, the women are able to create work that brings them an income.
It was a real pleasure to meet the women at the project – particularly as I was their first manbroiderer – and to share some thoughts with them about the joys of stitching. I had the chance to talk in detail with Dima (her name has been changed) aged 30 who had been in Lebanon since 2013 with her husband and son. She explained that embroidery had helped her feel better about her situation, easing her depression while also giving her something productive to do.
It was clear from speaking with the women that the benefits of embroidery that I’m often banging on about – how it soothes the soul and how it’s a wonderfully creative pursuit – made a big difference, and this group gave the women a break from their “normal” lives and a chance to enjoy each others’ company while getting their stitch on. It was great to see how much they enjoyed stitching, even suffering from that “one more stitch, OMG it’s 2AM!” experience that we’ve all been through.
When we unveiled the wall hangings to the group, there was quite a lot of emotion in the room. Rose Caldwell, the CEO of Concern Worldwide UK, explained how the project had come about, mentioning that so many stitchers had included personal messages along with their work, and it was great to see everyone realise that not only were the wall hangings a beautiful addition to their workspace, but they were filled with love, peace and solidarity. Omar, the project manager (the smiley guy in the middle of the next photo) translated for us and, as someone who had been closely linked with StitchforSyria from the start, was really emotional when we presented the hangings. He was genuinely touched by the work that went into them and the generosity that they represented.
The trip to Lebanon was a quick one, and was packed with all manner of emotion for me. As I mentioned earlier, the press coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis doesn’t do justice to the people involved, and disconnects us from the humanity of the situation. Meeting people whose lives had been similar to mine, who had been removed from their homes and were simply existing in Lebanon with very little to give them hope, was heart breaking, yet the resilience of their spirits was inspiring. It’s a bleak situation for them, and so the benefits of the Livelihoods project and the power of embroidery were all the more apparent.
It made me proud to have facilitated the StitchforSyria project, and honoured to have represented the hundreds of stitchers from around the world that participated in the project. It made me realise that in these situations, love and kindness are as important as financial aid, and that sometimes it’s the simple things that make the biggest difference.
It made me realise that the work carried out by Concern Worldwide, in fulfilling the basic needs of shelter, hygiene and warmth, are hugely profound and that they do a fantastic job of finding clever ways to also support the psychological needs of the people involved in this crisis. Unfortunately, the funding for these projects is always limited, and Concern continue to fund raise to support the work they’re doing in Lebanon. Your support is always appreciated, and you can donate to the StitchforSyria campaign at this link.
I’m hoping that I can find other ways to remain involved in this project, as it’s been a truly life changing experience. It never ceases to amaze me how embroidery can change lives, and thanks to StitchforSyria I’ve seen this transformation at it’s most powerful. Stitching provides a strong connection to a situation that we can’t always comprehend, and for many people, provides some peace in truly troubled times. That’s something really special.